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What Does the Founding Era Evidence Say About How Presidential Electors Must Vote? – 5th in a Series on the Electoral College

What Does the Founding Era Evidence Say About How Presidential Electors Must Vote? – 5th in a Series on the Electoral College

The previous installment collected founding era evidence on whether presidential electors were to control their own votes. The evidence included dictionary definitions, existing practices, and the records of the Constitutional Convention.

This installment continues the discussion of founding era by collecting material from the public debates on whether to ratify the Constitution. These debates occurred between September 17, 1787, when the Constitution became public, and May 29, 1790, when the 13th state, Rhode Island, ratified. Comments from those debates generally show that the ratifiers understood presidential electors were to exercise their own judgment when voting.

Probably the most-quoted statement from the public debate is from Alexander Hamilton’s Federalist No. 68:

A small number of persons, selected by their fellow-citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to such complicated investigations. . . . And as the electors, chosen in each State, are to assemble and vote in the State in which they are chosen, this detached and divided situation will expose them much less to heats and ferments, which might be communicated from them to the people, than if they were all to be convened at one time, in one place.

This is an important statement. However, for a number of reasons, we should not over-rely on The Federalist—or on Hamilton, for that matter—when reconstructing how the public understood the Constitution. Fortunately, there is a fair amount of additional evidence.

Some of this material consists of comments stating merely that the electors—rather than anyone else—would decide how to vote. In other words, they assume the electors would remain independent.

For example, Roger Sherman, a delegate at Philadelphia and a supporter of the Constitution, wrote that the president would be “re eligible as often as the electors shall think proper.” An essayist signing his name Civis Rusticus (Latin for “Country Citizen”) wrote that “the president was [chosen] by electors.” The Antifederalist author Centinel asserted that the state legislatures would “nominate the electors who choose the President of the United States.” The Antifederalist Candidus feared “the choice of President by a detached body of electors [as] dangerous and tending to bribery.”

In his second Fabius letter, John Dickinson—also described elector conduct in a way consistent only with free choice:

When these electors meet in their respective states, utterly vain will be the unreasonable suggestions derived for partiality. The electors may throw away their votes, mark, with public disappointment, some person improperly favored by them, or justly revering the duties of their office, dedicate their votes to the best interests of their country.

In Federalist No. 64, John Jay likewise implied elector choice and independence:

The convention . . . have directed the President to be chosen by select bodies of electors, to be deputed by the people for that express purpose; and they have committed the appointment of senators to the State legislatures . . .  As the select assemblies for choosing the President, as well as the State legislatures who appoint the senators, will in general be composed of the most enlightened and respectable citizens, there is reason to presume that their attention and their votes will be directed to those men only who have become the most distinguished by their abilities and virtue, and in whom the people perceive just grounds for confidence.

Some participants emphasized that electors would remain independent because the Constitution would protect them from outside influence. At the North Carolina ratifying convention, James Iredell, later a justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, spoke to the issue in a slightly different context:

Nothing is more necessary than to prevent every danger of influence. Had the time of election been different in different states, the electors chosen in one state might have gone from state to state, and conferred with the other electors, and the election might have been thus carried on under undue influence. But by this provision, the electors must meet in the different states on the same day, and cannot confer together. They may not even know who are the electors in the other states. There can be, therefore, no kind of combination. It is probable that the man who is the object of the choice of thirteen different states, the electors in each voting unconnectedly with the rest, must be a person who possesses, in a high degree, the confidence and respect of his country.

Advocates of the Constitution sometimes promoted the Electoral College as representing a viewpoint all its own rather than as reflecting the will of others. Hence Hamilton’s observation in Federalist No. 60:

The House of Representatives being to be elected immediately by the people, the Senate by the State legislatures, the President by electors chosen for that purpose by the people, there would be little probability of a common interest to cement these different branches in a predilection for any particular class of electors.

Some participants discussed how electors might be appointed—whether by the state legislatures or the people. For example, an essayist styled A Democratic Federalist wrote, “our federal Representatives will be chosen by the votes of the people themselves. The Electors of the President and Vice President of the union may also, by laws of the separate states, be put on the same footing.”

Yet such discussions of appointment were not accompanied by claims that those who made the appointments would dictate the electors’ votes. To be sure, William Davie, another Philadelphia delegate, said at the North Carolina ratifying convention that “The election of the executive is in some measure under the control of the legislatures of the states, the electors being appointed under their direction.” But “in some measure under the control” does not mean “wholly dictate.”

Possibly the closest anyone came to suggesting the legislatures would direct electors’ votes was a comment by Increase Sumner at the Massachusetts ratifying convention: “The President is to be chosen by electors under the regulation of the state legislature.” However, it is unclear what Sumner meant by “regulation.” He could be referring merely to the fact that the legislature would “regulate” how electors were appointed.

For those most part, moreover, participants worded their statements in ways that avoided any suggestions that electors’ votes could be controlled. In arguing for the Constitution, One of the People declared:

By the constitution, the president is to be chosen by ninety-one electors, each having one vote of this number . . . The constitution also admits of the people choosing the electors, so that the electors may be only one remove from the people . . .”

Note how this is phrased: (1) the electors choose the president, (2) the people may choose the electors, and if so (3) the choice of the president will be “only one remove from [not “determined by”] the people.”

At the Massachusetts ratifying convention Thomas Thacher asserted “The President is chosen by the electors, who are appointed by the people.” And in North Carolina Iredell argued that “the President is of a very different nature from a monarch. He is to be chosen by electors appointed by the people.” Again, observe the difference between appointment and choice of the president.

A final point: When crafting the Electoral College, the framers were careful to minimize opportunities for collusion, intrigue, or “influence.” As James Iredell observed in the extract quoted above, one element of the framers’ plan was to allow Congress to appoint a day for appointment of electors and another day for voting. In each case, however, “the Day shall be the same throughout the United States.” Article II, Section 1, Clause 4.

In 2016, the uniform day for the appointment of electors established by Congress was November 8. But Colorado authorities removed an elector and appointed in his alleged successor on December 19—manifestly not the same day as November 8.

Not only did this violate the uniform day rule, but it was a classic example of the kind of political maneuvering the rule was designed to prevent.

What Does the Founding Era Evidence Say About How Presidential Electors Must Vote? – 4th in a Series on the Electoral College

What Does the Founding Era Evidence Say About How Presidential Electors Must Vote? – 4th in a Series on the Electoral College

As mentioned in the first installment of this series, litigation has erupted in Colorado over whether a state may dictate the vote of a presidential elector and remove that elector if he opts to vote otherwise. Similarly, a Washington State lawsuit tests a state law that, while recognizing the validity of a vote contrary to an earlier pledge, imposes a $1000 fine on an elector who casts such a vote.

In 1952 the Supreme Court upheld an Alabama law requiring a person seeking office as an elector to pledge to support the nominee of his party.

Laws limiting the discretion of electors are justified as part of the state’s power to “appoint” electors. This justification is not airtight, however, because the appointment of an officer and directing his or her vote are not quite the same thing. For example, the people have power to appoint (elect) members of Congress and other officials. The people are right to expect successful candidates to honor their promises within practical limits. But the people have no constitutional power to direct congressional votes.

Consider also the rules under which Congress, state legislatures, and conventions exercise their constitutional powers in the amendment process. States have repeatedly passed laws attempting to control the actions of those assemblies, but the courts have repeatedly struck them down. The courts’ holdings are consistent with the founders’ understanding of how legislatures and conventions worked: Lawmakers could follow their consciences and convention delegates enjoyed significant discretion within the scope of the convention call. Indeed, if some delegates who had run for their state ratifying conventions as antifederalists had not voted for the Constitution once compromise had been reached, the Constitution would not have been ratified.

As explained below, the evidence suggests that the scope of a presidential elector’s constitutional discretion is even greater than that of a convention delegate.

Before proceeding further, however, let’s dispose of one issue. Some see significance in the fact that the original Constitution was ratified before the rise of national party voting, while the 12th amendment was approved in 1804 after parties became the norm. They suggest, therefore, that the meaning and expectations for elector voting under the 12th amendment might be different from those under the original Constitution.

It is, of course, true that the 12th amendment changed some aspects of the electoral system. But the language relevant to elector discretion charged hardly at all.

The original Constitution provided:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors. . . The Electors shall meet in their respective States, and vote by Ballot for two Persons, of whom one at least shall not be an Inhabitant of the same State with themselves.

The 12th amendment did not alter the wording of the first part of this selection, and its replacement for the second part was almost identical to the original: “The Electors shall meet in their respective states, and vote by ballot for President and Vice-President, one of whom, at least, shall not be an inhabitant of the same state with themselves.”

This near-identity cuts against the idea that there was less elector discretion under the 12th amendment than under the original Constitution. Standard rules of legal interpretation hold that when language does not change, meaning does not change. Party pressures might discipline electors more after 1804 than before, but electors had no more legal obligation to be disciplined after 1804 than before.

It follows that when construing the present constitutional language, we are fully justified in relying on the usual sources employed in construing the original Constitution.

One source of that kind is how contemporaries normally understood words and phrases used in the text.

In both the original and 12th amendment versions, the electors were to vote by ballot. To the founding generation, this invariably meant secret ballot. The whole point of a secret ballot is to hide the elector’s choice so to ensure that choice is free. But free choice is inconsistent with the state telling an elector how to vote.

Another important word in the text is elector. Eighteenth century general dictionaries define an elector as a person who does the choosing. Nathan Bailey’s 1765 dictionary defined an elector as “a chuser.” The first entry for “elector” in the 1785 edition of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary was “He that has a vote in the choice of any officer.” Other dictionaries featured kinred definitions.

Eighteenth century legal dictionaries did not define “elector,” but they did describe “election”—and with even clearer implications. The most popular law dictionary in America, that of Giles Jacob, said of “Election” that it “Is when a man is left to his own free will to take or do one thing or another, which he pleases.” Wording very similar to this appears in other law dictionaries.

Another important source of original meaning are practices of which the founding generation was aware. One was the election of members of Parliament in Scotland. Members were not directly elected, as in England. Rather, they were elected by “commissioners” selected for that purpose by voters or local governments.

A Scottish commissioner could be required to take an oath prescribed by parliamentary statute. By that oath he swore he had not received anything of value—apparently including his position as elector (“Office, Place, Employment”)—in exchange for his vote. In other words, a Scottish elector’s choice was not to be directed by the place that sent him.

Under the 1776 Maryland constitution, the state senate was selected by electors chosen by the voters. Electors were required to swear that they would “elect without favor, affection, partiality, or prejudice, such persons for Senators, as they, in their judgment and conscience, believe best qualified for the office.” Again, public expectation was that electors’ discretion would be unfettered.

The two leading precedents in the English speaking world both reinforced dictionary definitions: Electors were to think for themselves.

Now let’s turn to the Constitutional Convention. A key reason for adopting the Electoral College was to ensure the president’s independence from Congress and the states. Thus, James Wilson, who initially favored direct election of the president, shortly thereafter proposed an electoral college instead. According to Madison’s notes, Wilson “wished to derive not only both branches of the Legislature from the people, without the intervention of the State Legislatures but the Executive also; in order to make them as independent as possible of each other, as well as of the States.”

Obviously, permitting the states to dictate electors’ votes would undercut that policy of independence from the states. This is one reason the convention repeatedly rejected proposals for state officials to choose the president. As Edmund Randolph observed, “A Natl. Executive thus chosen will not be likely to defend with becoming vigilance & firmness the national rights agst. State encroachments.”

Next time: The evidence on elector discretion from the debates over the Constitution’s ratification.

Removing ‘Faithless’ Presidential Electors Is Unconstitutional

Removing ‘Faithless’ Presidential Electors Is Unconstitutional

This article originally appeared in the Daily Caller.

A 2016 Colorado Democratic presidential elector who pledged to vote for Hillary Clinton is suing because the state removed him from his position after he voted for Ohio Gov. John Kasich instead. He joins two other electors with somewhat similar claims.

The three electors argue the Constitution bans states from dictating how they vote. They are represented by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard law professor of wide interests and abilities.

According to the original meaning of the Constitution, Lessig and his three clients are correct. Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 and the 12th Amendment—which together govern presidential elections—grant electors, not the states, authority to vote for president and vice president. Colorado’s effort to punish them for voting “wrong” is unconstitutional.

Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 provides, “Each state shall appoint [Electors], in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct …” Note that the appointment is by the state itself rather than by any branch of the state.

How the appointment is carried out (“in such Manner”) is determined by the state legislature. The record from the Founding era tells us that in this instance, “legislature” means the state’s general lawmaking apparatus, including the governor’s bill-signing function. The Constitution assigns some responsibilities to state legislatures acting alone, but fixing the manner of appointing presidential electors is not among them.

In other words, aside from the Constitution’s grant to Congress of power to fix a uniform presidential election day, the “Manner” by which a state appoints presidential electors is prescribed by state election laws. All states have passed laws authorizing the people of the state to vote for electors directly. (It’s worth mentioning that, for reasons too complicated to discuss here, a 1934 Supreme Court decision holding that Congress also has broad power over presidential elections was erroneous.)

What does this “manner of appointment” include? May a state impose pledges on candidates for elector? May a state punish those who break their pledges? May it remove an elector who votes the “wrong” way and substitute another who votes “right?”

Although the Supreme Court has upheld pledges, I doubt whether the Constitution authorizes states to do any of these things. A great deal of Founding-era evidence tells us that in this context “Manner” includes only the basic mechanics of selection: registration lists, voting districts, necessary margin of victory, and the like. The evidence does not suggest that “Manner” of selection encompasses how a successful candidate acts after selection.

Several facts reinforce this conclusion. First, the 12th Amendment provides, “The Electors shall … vote by ballot for President and Vice-President …” Electors vote—not a state puppet master. As the Supreme Court has recognized in cases involving constitutional amendments, when the Constitution grants a function to a convention or legislature, it means the convention or legislature, not some outside coercing agency.

If the Constitution allowed state authorities to dictate their state’s presidential votes, then why did it require the states to appoint flesh-and-blood electors?

Electors are to vote “by ballot.” In Founding-era language, that means secret ballot. But a state’s preferences generally will be public information. If the electors have nothing to decide, then why did the Constitution require a secret ballot?

As if all this were not enough, the Founders were explicit: Once chosen, presidential electors make their own decisions. In Federalist No. 67, for example, Alexander Hamilton wrote of the Electoral College:

[T]he immediate election should be made by men most capable of analyzing the qualities adapted to the [president’s] station, and acting under circumstances favourable to deliberation, and to a judicious combination of all the reasons and inducements that were proper to govern their choice. A small number of persons, selected by their fellow citizens from the general mass, will be most likely to possess the information and discernment requisite to so complicated an investigation.

Of course, a candidate running for presidential elector has every right to tell the voters how he or she expects to cast his or her ballot. But for better or worse the Constitution does not authorize the state to punish an elector if, in the exercise of discretion, he decides to change his mind.